Every year, AWP, the big writing conference for writers, happens. All the writers go, then all the writers write about it. Everyone tries to make sense of it because AWP makes writers feel funny.
AWP makes writers feel funny because it threatens some of the thought patterns the writer needs in order to write well. When the writer first gets that impulse, that feeling that his thoughts are important, that he should be writing, he feels like he’s doing something special, something that he is uniquely equipped to do. He feels like he’s about to bring something to the world that no one else can. And the accuracy of this feeling is one of the great gifts of writing—the writer is uniquely equipped to write what only he can write; in the sense that nobody else can possibly say whatever it is that he has to say, he is in a way special; writing has the power to validate the desire for specialness, especially if the writer makes it big.
At AWP, walking around with a lanyard, lining up for panels, the writer feels just as special as the dentist feels at a dental conference, or the postal worker feels at a postal worker conference, if they even have those. I wonder if writers have historically preferred solitude not only because the quiet enables them to focus, but also because the solitude enables them to imagine themselves the way they need to imagine themselves in order to write well. The solitude enables the writer to imagine that he’s someone doing something bigger than the dude who he really is, the dude who showers and sometimes shaves and wonders what the best way to make money is. I wonder if great writing starts with the writer’s belief that he will produce great writing. At first, this belief would look like a delusion. The writer’s job is to make this delusion real, to fashion the world to match his vision of it.
My big celeb sighting this year was Chad Harbach. I told him I liked his novel and was excited to read the new MFA vs. NYC anthology. In my MFA program, when people asked me what the purpose of the workshop was (since I was always spouting about its purpose not being feedback, which I insisted was pointless), I said the purpose of the workshop was to destroy the writer’s romanticized view of writing. I would tell people that after you sit through a workshop, you’ll never again imagine yourself smoking in Paris with a beret on. I said that workshops forced the student writer to put his writing into a context outside his own head. Workshops made writing lame and that was the point—to force you to think of writing as something as realistic as dentistry.
The thing though is that writing really isn’t a realistic endeavor. It never has been. It’s not meant to be. So, when MFA programs train students to think of writing as a realistic thing to do, there’s something out of whack. One thing I’d always rant about in my MFA program was that it was designed to train its students not to be writers, but to lead lives informed by proximity to writing. AWP feels like a celebration of proximity to writing rather than a celebration of writing itself. All the panels. All the magazines that nobody reads. All the swag. It makes me want to go home, forget my lanyard, and actually write something.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.